At the risk of reaffirming what is already patently obvious, Kobe Bryant is special.
The latest proof of this truth came after the Lakers defeated the Suns on Christmas Day, with Bryant leading the way. As the star stood and answered questions for one of ABC's sideline reporters while the teams filed off the floor, the reporter interviewing him (whose name currently escapes me) asked about the performance of young center Andrew Bynum. In the preface of the question, she actually joked something to the effect of "Well, we know your opinion of him wasn't too high initially..."
The rest of the question doesn't even matter. Neither does the answer in which the game's best individual talent lauds the performance of the youngster at the pivot. It's that preface and its tone that keeps getting me and forces Kobe Bryant's uniqueness to keep hitting me over and over again.
Because, lest we forget, that initial opinion of Bryant on Bynum came to light when Kobe was caught on a camera phone saying, among other things, "Ship his [deleted] out." This would be just this past summer, when Kobe spent a few minutes slamming the young center and Lakers management in a grocery store parking lot. He swore. He ranted. He did the whole song and dance. Within days, it was all over the 'Net courtesy of the wonder that is YouTube. The man openly ripped his employer and his employer's most prized young prospect.
Yet less than six months later, Bryant has never once faced any sort of public repercussion for his actions, the rest of the organization appears to be totally cool with him, and -- this is the kicker -- broadcasters are joking with him about the incident on national television.
There isn't another player in the game who could get away with that.
Or at least there is no one who could get away with it and get off scot-free. Not LeBron. Not Flash. Not the good folks in Phoenix. It would never happen in San Antonio.
Kobe Bryant is unique in a way that nobody else currently playing in this league is.
Kobe Bryant is that special in Los Angeles. Because he puts fans in the seats and brings in the green, of course. But largely because even if the people in charge out there know little else, they know what it means to unearth the Kobe Bryant who is truly committed to playing winning basketball doing his thing in purple and gold, as they did during the three-peat at the beginning of the decade and as they believed they could find this season. Because he is the most complete player at his position. Because he is the best individual talent in the game and possibly the league's most explosive player since the retirement of a certain someone.
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All that in mind, there isn't a player in basketball who leaves me more internally conflicted than Kobe Bryant does.
On the one hand, I'll always believe that the Lakers' turn-of-the-millennium dynasty could have continued for at least a couple of years more if not for Bryant's petulance. It has always come off to me and continues to strike me as though the biggest problem in La La Land was Bryant's need to be Batman (even if it cost him a chance at more titles) instead of basketball's most glorified and most victorious Robin. It will always be hard to buy the company line about how much he is doing with so little around him, since it has always seemed that he put himself in the position that he is currently in by pushing one large individual out of town. The incident in Eagle, Colo., in July 2003 only further soiled his character. Guilty or not, he was an adulterer and a man who simply seemed to be too self-absorbed to ever support in any capacity. Struggling with mediocre teammates seemed to be his comeuppance, and in some senses, watching it unfold was perversely enjoyable. Building a team around him seemed to be an absolute no-go for any credible basketball mind, and even enjoying his physical talents amidst his variety of issues became increasingly difficult.
The past is immortal, and it is permanent. It remains hard to escape those sentiments about Kobe.
But the possibility of that escape seems to be illuminating itself more clearly than ever as the 2007-08 campaign unfolds. Almost across the board Bryant's statistical production is down. But for the first time, it seems that he is a willing and wanting leader in Los Angeles. Perhaps it is simply that winning cures all, and with his team holding the same record as it did at this point last season, perhaps all will come crashing back to Earth as occurred last year. But there at least seems to be an attitude change that has taken place within Bryant. There seems to be a desire to see those around him succeed, a desire to play winning basketball, not just to get his. It is visible when he emphatically high-fives Chris Mihm after a big dunk at Madison Square Garden, and it is visible when he affectionately rubs the head of the young big man for whom he once held such disdain. With each passing day, it is more visible than ever before.
And regardless of how the individual numbers differ from last year, there is no mistaking that Kobe Bryant is still playing great basketball, perhaps making the best individual effort in all of basketball. He is doing the things that don't show up in the box score: getting his teammates involved, making that invaluable pass that leads to an assist, playing upper-echelon defense again. He is also doing plenty that does show up in the box score: Bryant is averaging 27.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game on the season. When his team has needed him to step up on the biggest of stages, he has done just that. At in the World's Most Famous Arena on Sunday, he went 39-11-8, leading his team in all three categories. On Christmas Day in front of a national audience, Bryant bombed for 38 points to go with his 5 boards and 7 assists in propelling the Lakers to victory over the Suns.
The numbers don't even begin to convey the dazzling nature of vintage Kobe Bryant basketball. The tough buckets in traffic. The count-it-and-the-foul finishes that remind us just how strong his chiseled body is. The acrobatic shots that come off of several foot-fakes after he picks up his dribble. The one-arm-sling bullet passes. The from-the-moon threes. The blink-and-miss-the-explosion dunks. The defense that starts the fast breaks. And so much more.
Kobe Bryant is still the same refreshingly well-spoken man he always was.
Kobe Bryant is the NBA's premier individual performer. Enjoy the backseat, Bron et al.
Kobe Bryant might have tweaked his attitude just that slightest bit that could make all the difference in the world.
And suddenly, resisting that desire to like -- or at least enjoy watching -- him isn't so easy anymore.